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Acquiring Wisdom from the Lessons of Life

October 5, 2010

Acquiring Wisdom from the Lessons of Life:

Three weeks before she died and knew she did not have long to live, my grandmother, Lily Winner, wrote a very touching letter to my father who was attending college in a different city. This was in October, 1940. In passing along her parting thoughts to him, she wrote, “The most difficult thing for parents to learn is that they cannot pass along their wisdom, if they have acquired any, to their children. Experience has little reality unless it is your own.” I have learned the truth of these words though my own experiences as a parent.

So how do we acquire wisdom? Some writers and philosophers believe that study, reflection, and education are the keys. Others suggest having a great mentor or coach. Certainly these can help.

However, I know some well-educated and very smart people who also have very poor judgment and do not seem very wise to me. On the other hand, some of the wisest people I’ve met have ordinary jobs and relatively little education. What they have is a wealth of experience. They have learned from some of the hard lessons of life. Their wisdom evolved from their personal struggles, trial and error, setbacks and incremental successes. By taking action, solving problems, making mistakes, experimenting, and experiencing the consequences of their actions they learned many life lessons. They learned what works and what doesn’t, and how to avoid self-induced misfortune. Through the accumulation of these experiences, they grew, improved, and changed, developing wisdom in the process. I believe that is how all of us do, no matter how much formal education we may have. The key is to learn from experience and to apply those lessons to similar challenges.

If you have children I imagine you feel very blessed. You probably also feel their pain as they have their ups and downs, successes and setbacks, and make mistakes you know are easily avoidable. And if your experience is anything like mine, you know that much of the advice you offer seems to goes in one ear and out the other. Our children must learn though the realty of their own life experiences – both good and bad.

The good news is that most of them do learn. And most interestingly and thankfully, far more of what parents advise is actually absorbed than seems apparent at the time it’s offered. The internalization occurs when our children or students connect it with their own experiences and the real-life consequences of their actions — often well after guidance has been provided and they have tried things their own way. That’s when they recognize it as wisdom, even if they do not use that term.

How much they actually learn and internalize from the combination of personal experience and wise advice can be seen in how they handle new challenges and situations. That is the true test of whether they are developing their own wisdom. It’s is a life-long process for all of us.

Take a few moments to ponder the life lessons you have learned and how they made you wiser. How can that wisdom be exercised in valuable ways?

Steve Weitzenkorn

Steve Weitzenkorn, Ph.D., is a learning innovator, organizational advisor, experienced facilitator, and lead author of Find-Fulfill-Flourish: Discover Your Purpose with LifePath GPS – a book, tool kit, and workshop series focused on guiding people toward more meaningful and fulfilling lives.

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12 Comments leave one →
  1. October 5, 2010 2:52 am

    Steve, I’m so glad we connected because I’ve now read some of your posts and truly feel inspired. I relate to much of what you’ve written and I will make it a habit to visit often.

    Keep the wisdom and insights coming!!

    • October 5, 2010 6:07 am

      Thanks so much for your feedback. Please feel free to offer your own insights as well. I, too, am glad we connected.
      Be well,

  2. Ana permalink
    October 5, 2010 2:56 am


    Very well put and so true. I would like to share this with my readers.


    • October 5, 2010 6:09 am

      Thanks so much for your kind words and feedback. Yes, please feel free to share it with your readers and offer your own insights as well. I’m glad we discovered each other.
      My best,

  3. David K. permalink
    October 5, 2010 2:11 pm

    For a more academic look into “wisdom,” here is a link to a paper by Dr. Monika Ardelt, a noted sociologist in the subject:

    It is consistent with Steve’s insight.

    Enjoy and be well.

  4. October 5, 2010 4:39 pm

    After reading your post I am reminded of how all we can take with us from this life is our own experiences. We can’t take anyone else’s experiences with us. Although we can learn from others experiences and lessons they have learned in their life it is not quite the same thing as the knowledge and wisdom we gain from living and doing things on our own. Great post – I will visit often!

    • October 5, 2010 4:45 pm

      Thanks so much for sharing your thoughts and insights.


  5. dusterbed permalink
    October 5, 2010 7:55 pm

    I am not a parent, but I’m definitely someone’s child… What you have said sounds about right. Experiences and learning from mistakes is a big key to this puzzle, but coupled WITH a parents’ advice: invaluable. I definitely absorbed more than my parents will ever know, As soon as I made a mistake-the first thing I would remember was the corresponding warnings or advice from my parents. That is what helped cement the lesson learning! 🙂 If my parents had not imparted the advice in the first place, the mistake might not have been so grave in my eyes… And the lesson definitely would not have had the same impact!

    • October 5, 2010 8:15 pm

      I really appreciate your perspective on this. When you are a parent, it’s not often that you hear how your child really feels about advice you offered, except the immediate reaction. Knowing there is gratitude after the fact is really heart warming, as well as having a sense of what learned and what the child plans to do differently in the future. Thanks for providing such refreshing insights.


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